David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; March 1, 2014
In the years I’ve watched Janie Taylor dance with New York City Ballet, I’ve rarely seen her smile. A blonde whisper of a dancer, she typically leaves no emotional trail behind her: she dances cleanly and impeccably, but appears as a simple, albeit extraordinarily skillful, vessel onto which choreography is molded. Even on those rare occasions when I’ve seen her walk down the street toward the NYCB stage door, her demeanor appeared similarly emotionless. But with Ms. Taylor, being emotionless is a reflection of focus, not vacancy. And this quality of intense concentration creates a stage persona not of emptiness, but of purity – a quality that she brings to every role I’ve seen her dance. That being said, it would be nice once in a while to see her smile.
Ms. Taylor and her husband Sebastien Marcovici, both NYCB principal dancers, gave their farewell performances on the evening of Saturday March 1st, dancing in “Afternoon of a Faun” and “La Valse.” Their performances exemplified the quality work that both have done over the years (Ms. Taylor joined the company in 1998; Mr. Marcovici in 1993).
In addition to being a festive farewell, the program also provided a second opportunity to see a new ballet, Liam Scarlett’s “Acheron.” While the second time isn’t quite the charm, the performance highlighted the difference that changes in a cast may make on a piece’s impact.
On Saturday night, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild danced the roles previously performed by Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring; and Sara Adams and Andrew Veyette assumed those danced initially by Rebecca Krohn and Tyler Angle. Ashley Bouder and Amar Ramasar repeated as the third featured couple. The different cast – and primarily the performance by Ms. Peck – changed the dynamics of the piece considerably. Unlike the characterization by Ms. Mearns, Ms. Peck’s character is not necessarily consumed by sadness or weakness. Rather, I saw her portrayal as that of a strong woman suffering equally with her partner. Both she and Mr. Fairchild were mesmerizing.
As a result, I saw the three featured couples in a new, more balanced light. I no longer saw the women as victims and the men as predators. Rather, the three couples were expressive of different and individualized forms of suffering. This was a significant change in perception that to me improved the tone of the piece considerably. And even though the Adams/Veyette couple maintained the dominant/submissive relationship that I saw previously with the Krohn/Angle pair, it appeared less visually disturbing within the overall context.
But even with more clearly defined distinctions between the featured couples, the meaning of “Acheron,” whatever Mr. Scarlett intended it to be, doesn’t come through. If this is a voyage to Hades, whether actual or metaphorical, focusing the action on three couples with interpersonal and erotically charged issues converts the events portrayed on stage into a somewhat Boschian garden of earthly delights. That may be Mr. Scarlett’s point, and that’s fine, but interjecting a sole male dancer as some sort of singular survivor on the journey (and/or who is better off being uninvolved in the unfulfillable heterosexual relationships) diminishes the piece’s intended significance, whatever that is, and converts it into simple random choreographed snapshots of doomed people. Nevertheless, “Acheron” is a work of intelligence and has moments of rare beauty, and as I observed initially, should be seen for the performances alone.
“Walpurgisnacht Ballet” has a long history. Balanchine first choreographed dances to music from Gounod’s opera “Faust” in 1925, which, in the context of the opera, were performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He subsequently created dances for other opera productions, but the ballet’s present form, which premiered in 1980, was its first independent incarnation. Perhaps because it was intended to be standalone, the connection now of “Walpurgisnacht Ballet” to the opera is virtually nonexistent. The temporal setting for the ballet is the festivities prior to May Day, as depicted in the opera, when the souls of the dead are released to wander at will. Even here, however, the story is distilled and limited to presenting a tribe of alluring women, one of whom entertains a passing danseur, while the others, led by their principal blithe spirit, party to Gounod’s bacchanalian music. Giselle’s willis reimagined as Sylvia and her nymphs.
To me the ballet is not one of Balanchine’s better creations, and, as a friend suggested, is known primarily for its concluding section when the women dance with their hair down – a nod to sensuality and, in context, perhaps lost inhibitions. But although a ‘story’ isn’t the ballet’s strong suit, the steps for the two lead ballerinas are. As the ballerina paired with the danseur (Mr. Danchig-Waring), Ms. Mearns appeared at first much too doleful – more like the tribe’s designated sacrificial virgin than its queen (although her title, if there is any, isn’t specified). But muted excitement then kicked in, and her dancing thereafter featured sufficient enthusiasm to match her impeccable technique. As the leader of the nymph pack, Lauren Lovette executed Balanchine’s feverish footwork with ease, and was a benevolent but commanding presence. This was another of Ms. Lovette’s new roles this season, and it was as successful as the others: her naturally-conveyed joy dominated the stage, and she nearly stole the piece from Ms. Mearns. When it ended, a woman who appeared to be in her seventies leaned over to me and said: “That was very good, wasn’t it? And that Lauren Lovette is something else.” Indeed.
But the evening’s prominence, and probably the reason for the performance being as well-attended as it was, was Ms. Taylor and Mr. Marcovici’s valedictory.
It might have been better had Ms. Taylor and Mr. Marcovici’s final performance included ballets for which their portrayals are justly renowned: for example, Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula” or “Orpheus,” or Robbins’ “The Cage.” And ending her career dancing to Balanchine’s “Serenade” would have been perfect for Ms. Taylor. But considering that this schedule was probably cemented long before their retirement plans were announced, “Afternoon of a Faun” and “La Valse” proved to be excellent vehicles for highlighting their strengths. That Ms. Taylor and Mr. Marcovici performed memorably, and with their usual class, was a bonus.
First choreographed by Vaslav Nijinksy for the Ballets Russes to Debussy’s 1894 score (which in turn was based on an 1865 poem by Stephane Mallarme), “L’après-midi d’un faune” reportedly created a sensation at its 1912 premiere. In its original incarnation, and in subsequent recreations I’ve seen, the piece shocks all the senses. Robbins transfers the story to a ballet studio, with the faun and lead nymph in the original production replaced by a male and female dancer. And instead of being exotically sensual, the atmosphere is ‘real,’ and the sensuality depicted is normal hormonal arousal amplified by characters whose existence is measured by physicality and narcissism – all taking place in a dream-like haze of self-intoxication. But the end result is no less erotic than Nijinsky’s original – it’s just not at all shocking (in fact, it not only exploits the preconception of dancers as beautiful people, it confirms the audience’s presumption that these idealized dancers are as attractive to each other as they are to the rest of us).
I had not previously seen either Ms. Taylor or Mr. Marcovici in these roles, but that’s my loss. Although they’re now more experienced than others I’ve seen in this piece, this did not distract in any way from its inherent eroticism. The role suited Ms. Taylor well – she was every bit the knowingly unknowing self-absorbed seductress. But Mr. Marcovici’s appropriately understated portrayal of the aroused and abandoned dancer visibly overwhelmed with barely restrained passion was particularly compelling, and it proved to be one of his finest performances.
“La Valse” also has connections to Ballets Russes. The score, by Maurice Ravel, was commissioned by Diaghilev, who ultimately – and, to Ravel, scandalously – rejected it. Balanchine resuscitated it in 1951, adding an introductory section choreographed to the eight waltzes comprising Ravel’s “Valse Nobles et Sentimentales” to create the mood leading to the eventual catastrophe that “La Valse” relates.
According to the brief program note, Ravel was ‘intrigued by the disintegration of the waltz form’, and “La Valse” was ‘intended to represent its apotheosis’. I don’t see it, or hear it, that way. Although Ravel is known as an Impressionist composer, as was Debussy, to my uneducated musical ear “La Valse” sounds more akin to the work of Romantic composers such as Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. To me, and consistent with its melodramatic aura, it represents a dizzying loss of control exemplified by the waltz’s increasing frenetic intensity (similar, in a way, to Ravel’s “Bolero”), perhaps intended (if there was any specific intention) more to represent the decay and demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it was to reflect a purportedly dying musical form. Regardless, the ballet is a macabre piece in which the waltz becomes an emotional and physical whirl of movement leading to the suddenness, the purposelessness, and the hopelessness of death. There’s no reason for it – it just is. It’s Balanchine’s “Vienna Waltzes” turned on its head and painted black.
Mr. Marcovici was the tortured soul who finds his mate but loses her to death, and his performance matched his finely-tuned renderings of similar characters in other ballets in recent seasons. But Ms. Taylor’s multi-dimensional portrayal of the doomed woman in white took the piece to a higher level: she moved seamlessly from happiness to despair to resolution to death. And although seeing Ms. Taylor’s lifeless body uplifted by a phalanx of tuxedoed pallbearers isn’t exactly how I would have wanted to see her last performance image (the final image in “Serenade” would have been so much more stirring), mentally converting the image to one of Ms. Taylor being carried aloft in tribute, albeit as a dead character, is not a bad way to say goodbye.
When the curtain came down, the celebration began. The “La Valse” cast first applauded the two of them as they stood center stage during the course of the usual post-performance bows, and then one by one they were greeted with roses by the company’s principal dancers, soloists, and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, as streamers and confetti and more flowers both from dancers and members of the audience who didn’t want to let them leave coated the stage floor. And for once I saw something I hadn’t previously seen unless it was programmed into a ballet – I saw Ms. Taylor smile.